Afghan Corruption Czar Is "Dead Meat" if He Pursues Top Graft
Obama says Karzai is moving against fraud. But a report from Kabul shows that's not really happening.
When Afghan President Hamid Karzai was in Washington last month, President Obama and his aides repeatedly maintained that the Afghan leader was making progress in fighting corruption, which is rampant throughout Afghanistan and threatens the Obama administration's plans to bolster a central government that can become capable of taking on the Taliban and al Qaeda. A joint statement from Obama and Karzai referred to Karzai's "efforts to strengthen the powers and authorities" of the High Office of Oversight, Kabul's national anti-corruption unit. Asked whether Karzai was making progress combating corruption, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs pointed to this office, and he noted that the High Office "now operates with a mission to increase its accountability." In another briefing, Lt. General Douglas Lute, a deputy national security adviser, asserted that Karzai had provided the head of this office "renewed powers to deal with corruption." Yet shortly after Karzai departed Washington, the RAND Corporation held a briefing on Capitol Hill that delivered a starkly different message: The High Office of Oversight and its commissioner, Mohammad Yusin Osmani, are virtually powerless to confront the serious corruption that infects the senior levels of Karzai's government.
Osmani became head of this anti-corruption office in 2008, and last November he was grousing that his outfit lacked the resources and authority to pursue or prosecute cases. His High Office could only refer corruption cases to police and prosecutors, who might themselves be corrupt. At that time, the Afghan government was announcing new initiatives to crack down on graft, yet Osmani's office was only 30 percent staffed. In December, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report on the High Office of Oversight, noting that Osmani's unit "suffers from significant gaps in operational capacity." SIGAR's investigation concluded that the HOO is "greatly understaffed, and many of its employees are either inexperienced or lack basic skills, such as computer use and information gather ing techniques." The report added, "the HOO lacks the organizational, external, and personal independence required by international standards for an oversight institution." (The report also pointed out that the US government had "no office or individual specifically designated to oversee or coordinate" US assistance to this office.) The SIGAR report was clear: the High Office of Oversight was a mess. In March, Karzai, under pressure from Washington to demonstrate progress on the anti-corruption front, signed a decree granting the office the power to investigate allegations of corruption. "I wish him success," Karzai said of Osmani.
But Osmani hasn't had much success. This spring, RAND held a three-day workshop in Kabul that brought together several dozen members of Afghanistan's small anti-corruption community, including journalists, members of parliament, public interest advocates, and Osmani. The conference participants reported that in Afghanistan—which is ranked the second most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International (after Somalia)—corruption has far exceeded what was once customary graft. They complained that corruption has infested small daily interactions, large government contracts, and the appointments of senior government officials, and that it is undermining the legitimacy of both the Karzai government and the international community, including the United States. These participants shared their own tales of graft: having to pay tax agents bribes to accept tax filings, having to offer bribes so they can pay electricity bills. (A recent UN report estimates that bribes make up one-quarter of the Afghan economy, and it notes that one out of four Afghans were forced to pay at least one bribe to a police office in the previous year.)